Saturday, January 17, 2015

Motorola Nexus 6

Unless you’re a die hard Android fan you've probably never heard of the Nexus line of phones. Google contracts various manufacturers to produce reference platform devices to showcase “vanilla” Android. Owners of these devices generally enjoy running the latest Android updates, sent straight from Google. History has shown the devices themselves have been a mixed bag in terms of performance, reliability and build quality. The previous generation Nexus phone, the Nexus 5 is generally lauded as one of the best Android devices to date. Built by LG, it hit the sweet spot right in the middle of performance, good design and price. After about 2 months of ownership I feel qualified to comment on how its successor compares.
Form Factor/Cost
At first glance it's clear the Nexus 6 took a hard left from where it left the Nexus 5 in Google’s product road map. The 6 is huge, it eclipses a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (albeit only just) and is quite thick in the center. The size is great if you can handle it, literally. Once you go to this size display it’s very difficult to go back to even a 5” screen. The readability and real estate are addictive. It’s pocketable in my large men’s jeans but only just. Anything bigger and I’ll need to start carrying a murse. The gently curved back helps with holdability but it’s annoying that it doesn't lie flat. An “OK” response is challenging to issue if the phone is sitting on a desk. The other most significant departure from the outgoing model is the price. At $650 it’s nearly twice as expensive as the Nexus 5. The 2K screen and other top tier components force it to compete with high end devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6. While this sounds fair on paper it was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to the Nexus community. The Nexus line is no longer the budget friendly path to excellent, well supported devices.
For its tip top specs and cost I expected blistering performance in day to day use. Unfortunately the reality is far from this ideal. The phone struggles to do something as simple as launch an app without delay. Frequently I’ve tapped app icons a second time when the first press didn’t seem to register, only to have the app open as soon as my finger comes down the second time. The multitasking card view also takes an unreasonable amount of time to load. Most surprisingly, certain applications perform more slowly on the Nexus 6 than on my 2013 Moto G (MyFitnessPal and Slickdeals come to mind). I’ve read most of the performance issues I’ve experienced are due to the software based full disk encryption Google uses on the Nexus 6. Their minds were in the right place by making the phone more secure by default but the performance hit is unacceptable. It wouldn’t be as infuriating if I could simply turn off the encryption but this is not an option, at least not without rooting the device and jumping through a few hoops.
The camera on the Nexus 6 is the best of any Nexus to date but that’s not saying much. As someone who frequently uses an DSLR to take photos of fast moving objects (e.g. kids) the Nexus 6 camera produces inconsistent results in anything but perfect lighting conditions. I’d estimate only 1 in 6 indoor shots I take of my kids produce a result where faces are not an unrecognizable blur. Autofocus is slow and light metering is frustrating in the Google camera app. Third party apps remedy this somewhat, especially now that Lollipop gives API access for them to directly control the ISO and shutter speed as well as capture in RAW format (Camera FV-5 deserves a mention here) but the “stock” experience is mediocre at best. So much so that I usually grab my wife’s iPhone 6 any time I need to take a photo on the run.
Battery life is only barely acceptable. It’s a good thing Motorola includes a turbocharger that can boost the from from dead to 80% in something like 10-15 minutes. Equally important for this power hungry beast is its support for the Qi wireless charging standard. I have two Qi pads, one at work and one at home. If I don’t top off my battery half way through the day I’m in trouble if I have a late night out planned. It boggles the mind how a 3220 mAh battery can be so insufficient. It would seem the 2k screen used in the Nexus 6 is the culprit. Despite also using a similar AMOLED display the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 achieves nearly double the on-screen time of the Nexus 6 in the benchmarks I’ve seen. I don’t know how this is possible but I would gladly take a 1080p display if it meant twice the battery life. Maximizing off charger time clearly wasn’t a focus for Motorola and Google and it shows.
It needs to be said I’m on my third Nexus 6. I purchased the AT&T variant when it became available for preorder. The device I received was subject to one to three random restarts per day as well as bouts of unreachability, inbound calls would go straight to voicemail despite the phone sitting on my desk with full cell service. The second device I received suffered from the same issues. The 3rd Nexus 6 came with a green dot on the box, indicating it was from a new production run. While AT&T and Motorola never officially acknowledged a problem with the first run of devices it’s clear by this mark that something tainted a not insignificant number of first-run devices. Despite the third phone being a much more stable experience, my confidence in Motorola as a competent device maker has been shaken.
This phone is clearly the result of mismanagement and lack of vision. It feels like it exists mostly as a release vehicle for Android Lollipop and as a statement that Google wants Android on large screen devices destined for (Google Play) media consumption, everything else be damned. The poor battery life, QA problems and disk performance all point to a product that was rushed and/or not given enough resources to develop completely before a hard ship date. That being said, it’s the only way to get stock Android on a device larger than the Nexus 5. If another vendor announced a 5.5-6.0” device with unadulterated Android updates as they were released from Google I would jump ship from this mess of a device without hesitation, assuming there’s enough resale value in it to break even.

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